Read

Search form

David Graeber's Utopia of Rules: Why Deregulation Is Actually Expanding Bureaucracy

David Graeber's Utopia of Rules: Why Deregulation Is Actually Expanding Bureaucracy
Wed, 3/18/2015 - by Steve Rushton

The current economic system advances through free trade and deregulation; the American Dream has been outsourced globally. This has created a bureaucratic nightmare, asserts David Graeber in his latest book, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.

Graeber, whose best-selling 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, looked at the historical relationship between debt and social institutions, says in his current work that there is an "iron law" of liberalism: “Any market reform, government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

The corporate narrative maintains that governments are to blame for all the red tape. This message is central within the rightwing's critique of bureaucracy as it continues to push for further deregulation. But convincingly Graeber takes this argument apart.

Graeber points as an example to the complex, form-filling bureaucracy that comes with personal banking. Banks as institutions have the power to create money, simply by making IOUs. Therefore there can be no such thing as an unregulated bank, Graeber tells us. Banking regulations develop from the joint initiative between bank lobbyists and politicians, with banks in the driver's seat pushing for not less, but more rules and regulations that will catch people out. Graeber argues that when neoliberals say deregulation, what they really mean is re-regulation enabling corporations to make larger profits.

The fusion of state and corporations contradicts the mainstream narrative that the state is a clumsy bureaucratic muddle, constantly getting in corporations’ way with red tape. Rather, Graeber points out how central the state has been since the financialization – or re-regulation – of the 1970s. In his view, wealth has been extracted from the masses simply based on people having to fill out more and more forms.

Graeber also shows ways in which the state is complicit in corporate fraud. He recounts hearing a financial regulator talk about what happens when government agencies discover systemic fraud. The bureaucrat, according to Graeber, explains that government basically makes sure it gets a cut, never pressing charges and instead settling out of court – always for an amount lower than profit from the original fraud. Examples of this in action include the HSBC fines for money laundering for drug cartels, the inaction over LIBOR rate-rigging, and other systemic rigging scandals.

The Utopia of Rules maintains that we, in the ultra-capitalist West, have in fact become like the Soviet Union – a fusion of the state and private enterprise. Those who have assumed control in our current system did so on an ideological platform that vehemently criticized bureaucracy while relentlessly expanding it, says Graeber.

The iron law of liberalism, where deregulation really means more regulation, is evident in the proposed new round of global trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Graeber suggests these corporate trade pacts aim to solidify the global bureaucracy even further.

The proposed Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) reveals Graeber’s point. Through ISDS, panels will be set up whereby unelected corporate bureaucrats will decide whether companies can sue governments if those government so much as stand in the way of corporate profits. In effect, according to Graeber, “deregulation” is creating something of a global civil service.

Graeber acknowledges that his book aims to start a discussion on bureaucracy – rather than come up with the answers or alternatives. But the introduction alone is a convincing description about the Orwellian nightmare in which many of us feel we currently live: where the language of those in power suggests they're leading us one direction, while their actions actually forcing us in another.

But Graeber accompanies his argument with both hope and humor, lightening the mood with one-liners like, “Whenever someone starts talking about the “free market,” it’s a good idea to look around for the man with the gun.”

Recounting his own activist experience, he also sees hope. Graeber suggests the free-trade bureaucratization of the planet has already been tried and failed. This happened when the IMF, World Bank and WTO reared their collective head in the 1990s and were met by Global Justice Movement which he suggests, unknown to itself, was an anti-bureaucratic movement.

As a collection of three essays, the book is threaded together around the common theme of bureaucracy. The reader follows Graeber in the first chapter through discussions about how the bureaucratic world subdues imagination, and creates blinkers through which structural power is enforced without being recognized. Along the way, he discusses how paperwork is generally under-studied because it is too boring, and how police are bureaucrats with weapons; he meanwhile comments on the useful discipline of structural analysis and the challenges of overcoming bureaucracies only to recreate them. The latter point, Graeber suggests, can be solved by the direct democracy of today’s Squares movement.

The book asks why we've gotten the technology we have today, rather than other promises from the 1980s – such as hover-boards or robots that do the chores. Why has the pace of invention dropped, he asks.

Presenting it through a rich tapestry of ideas and examples, the central idea of The Utopia of Rules is that capitalists determined the world we live in, based on their own interests. Graeber makes the case that by unleashing our imagination, society could innovate in ways beyond technologies built for the sake of profits.

He turns his attention to ways that bureaucracies can actually be useful, even essential, for instance for organ donation lists or for enabling access to free and universal public services. Graeber argues that the reason bureaucracies remain – even though everyone apparently hates them – is because at their best they can serve as tools that enable positive human interaction.

As Graeber promises in the introduction, The Utopia of Rules doesn't provide the answers to our all-consuming bureaucracy. But it raises crucial questions about the power of bureaucracy that don't normally get asked. Most crucially, the book lays out how the 1% controls the world using a message of deregulation – even as they feed off the labor of the masses from an ever-growing regulatory system of their making.

 

Sign Up

Article Tabs

Twenty states, backed by Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, are trying in the courts to dismantle the law by attacking what they see as its Achilles heel: the individual mandate.

occupy, creative activism, activism, act out e165

A backlog that's symptomatic of a patriarchal system that not only devalues women but devalues survivors of sexual assault.

E.U. trade, U.S. trade war, aluminium tariffs, steel tariffs

“These tariffs aren’t even legal under U.S. law, let alone World Trade Organization laws. It seems rather odd to be citing national security and targeting countries including your closest allies.”

public banking, public banks, Bank of North Dakota, public financing, financing infrastructure, Wall Street influence, private-public investments

Private interests’ influence over banking consumes, rather than sustains, the public good.

Dodd-Frank act, Volcker Rule, bank deregulation, Wall Street lobby, proprietary trading, SEC

By revising the Volcker Rule, a centerpiece of the 2010 Dodd-Frank act, the feds are pushing financial regulation in a direction that should worry everyone.

The Trump administration has backtracked on its policy but offered no immediate plan for reuniting families. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

NGOs say bringing parents and children back together is an enormous puzzle with no clear system from the administration.

EPA, pollution deaths, pollution risks, Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, respiratory illness

The authors used EPA’s own risk assessments to estimate the number of illnesses and early deaths prevented by clean air and water rules Trump is now trying to erase.

The Associated Press reports that young migrant children forcibly separated from their parents are being sent to facilities that critics described as "prisons for babies." (Photo: @NIJC/Twitter)

Those who have visited the facilites describe "play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis."

Twenty states, backed by Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, are trying in the courts to dismantle the law by attacking what they see as its Achilles heel: the individual mandate.

wage theft, corporate crimes, CEO pay,

An eye-opening new report has documented billions of dollars of corporate theft from workers. The government is turning a blind eye.

public banking, public banks, Bank of North Dakota, public financing, financing infrastructure, Wall Street influence, private-public investments

Private interests’ influence over banking consumes, rather than sustains, the public good.

Posted 6 days 11 hours ago
E.U. trade, U.S. trade war, aluminium tariffs, steel tariffs

“These tariffs aren’t even legal under U.S. law, let alone World Trade Organization laws. It seems rather odd to be citing national security and targeting countries including your closest allies.”

Posted 5 days 7 hours ago
U.S. Border Patrol agents take into custody a father and son from Honduras near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, near Mission, Texas. The asylum seekers were then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

A new report confirms that Trump and his advisers had been considering the brutal policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border for as long as they’ve been in power.

Posted 6 days 12 hours ago
family separations, ICE, immigrant deportations,

The size and brutality of this particular raid in Ohio, along with the use of military tactics, have shocked even the most seasoned immigrants’ rights activists.

Posted 5 days 12 hours ago
The Trump administration has backtracked on its policy but offered no immediate plan for reuniting families. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

NGOs say bringing parents and children back together is an enormous puzzle with no clear system from the administration.

Posted 2 days 14 hours ago
The Trump administration has backtracked on its policy but offered no immediate plan for reuniting families. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

NGOs say bringing parents and children back together is an enormous puzzle with no clear system from the administration.

E.U. trade, U.S. trade war, aluminium tariffs, steel tariffs

“These tariffs aren’t even legal under U.S. law, let alone World Trade Organization laws. It seems rather odd to be citing national security and targeting countries including your closest allies.”

wage theft, corporate crimes, CEO pay,

An eye-opening new report has documented billions of dollars of corporate theft from workers. The government is turning a blind eye.

The Associated Press reports that young migrant children forcibly separated from their parents are being sent to facilities that critics described as "prisons for babies." (Photo: @NIJC/Twitter)

Those who have visited the facilites describe "play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis."

EPA, pollution deaths, pollution risks, Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, respiratory illness

The authors used EPA’s own risk assessments to estimate the number of illnesses and early deaths prevented by clean air and water rules Trump is now trying to erase.